I didn't go exploring that day. I stayed at the Cirque Du Freak and celebrated Shancus's birthday. He loved his new snake, and I thought Urcha was going to float away with joy when he found out Shancus's old snake was to be his. The party went on longer than expected. The table was loaded up with more cakes and buns, and not even the ever-hungry Rhamus Twobellies could finish them off. Afterwards we prepared for that night's show, which went ahead smoothly. I spent most of the show in the wings, studying faces in the audience, looking for old neighbours and friends. But I didn't see anybody I recognized.
The next morning, while most of the Cirque folk were sleeping, I slipped out. Although it was a bright day, I wore a light anorak over my clothes, so I could pull the hood up and mask my face if I had to.
I walked rapidly, thrilled to be back. The streets had changed a lot - new shops and offices, many redecorated or redesigned buildings - but the names were the same. I ran into memories on every block. The shop where I bought my football boots. Mum's favourite clothes boutique. The cinema where we'd taken Annie to her first film. The newsagent where I shopped for comics.
I wandered through a vast complex which used to be my favourite computer arcade. It was under new ownership and had grown beyond recognition. I tried out some of the games, and smiled as I remembered how excited I'd get when I'd come here on a Saturday and blast away a few hours on the latest shoot-'em-up.
Moving away from the central shopping area, I visited my favourite parks. One was now a housing estate but the other was unchanged. I saw a groundsman tending to a bed of flowers - old William Morris, my friend Alan's grandfather. William was the first person from the past I'd seen. He hadn't known me very well, so I was able to walk right past him and study him up-close without fear of being spotted.
I wanted to stop and chat with Alan's grandfather, and ask for news about Alan. I was going to tell him that I was one of Alan's friends, that I'd lost touch with him. But then I remembered that Alan was now an adult, not a teenager like me. So I walked on, silent, unobserved.
I was anxious to check out my old house. But I didn't feel ready - I trembled with nerves every time I thought about it. So I wandered through the centre of town, past banks, shops, restaurants. I caught glimpses of half-remembered faces - clerks and waiters, a few customers - but nobody I'd known personally.
I had a bite to eat in a cafe. The food wasn't especially good, but it had been Dad's favourite place - he often brought me here for a snack while Mum and Annie were doing damage in the shops. It was nice to sit in the familiar surroundings and order a chicken and bacon sandwich, like in the old days.
After lunch, I strolled past my original school - a really eerie feeling! A new wing had been added, and there were iron railings around the perimeter, but apart from that it looked just the way I remembered. Lunch break was ending. I watched from underneath the shadows of a tree while the students filed back into class. I saw some teachers too. Most were new, but two caught my attention. One was Mrs McDaid. She'd taught languages, mostly to older students. I'd had her for half a term when my regular teacher was on a leave of absence.
I'd been much closer to the other teacher - Mr Dalton! I'd had him for English and history. He'd been my favourite teacher. He was chatting with some of his students as he entered class after lunch, and by their smiles I saw he was still as popular as ever.
It would have been great to catch up with Mr Dalton. I was seriously thinking about waiting for school to finish, then going to see him. He'd know what had happened to my parents and Annie. I needn't tell him I was a vampire - I could say I had an anti-ageing disease, which kept me looking young. Explaining away my "death" would be tricky, but I could cook up some suitable story.
One thing held me back. A few years ago, in Mr Crepsley's home city, I'd been branded a killer by the police, and my name and photo had been flashed all over the TV and newspapers. What if Mr Dalton had heard about that? If he knew I was alive, and thought I was a murderer, he might alert the authorities. Safer not to take the risk. So I turned my back on the school and slowly walked away.
It was only then that it struck me that Mr Dalton wouldn't be the only one who might have picked up on the "Darren Shan - serial killer!" hysteria. What if my parents had heard about it! Mr Crepsley's city was in a different part of the world, and I wasn't sure how much news travelled between the two countries. But it was a possibility.
I had to sit down on a street bench while I considered that horrific potential. I could only begin to imagine how shocking it would have been if, years after they'd buried me, Mum and Dad had spotted me on the news, under a caption branding me a killer. How had I never thought about it before?
This could be a real problem. As I'd told Harkat, I didn't intend going to see my family - too painful for everyone. But if they already knew I was alive, and were living with the misbelief that I was a killer, I'd have to set the record straight. But what if theydidn't know?
I had to do some research. I'd passed a brand new, ultra-modern library earlier that morning. Hurrying back to it, I asked a librarian for assistance. I said I was doing a school project and had to pick some local story from the last three years to write about. I asked to examine all the issues of the main local paper, as well as the national paper which my mum and dad used to read. I figured, if word of my exploits in Mr Crepsley's city had spread this far, there'd be a mention of me in one of those two papers.
The librarian was happy to help. She showed me where the microfiche were stored, and how to use them. Once I'd got the knack of getting them up on screen and scanning from one page to the next, she left me to my own devices.
I started with the earliest editions of the national paper, from a few months before I ran into trouble with the law. I was looking for any mention of Mr Crepsley's city and the killers plaguing it. I made quick time, glancing only at the international sections. I found a couple of references to the murders - and they were both mocking! Apparently journalists here were amused by the vampire rumours which had swept the city, and the story was treated as light entertainment. There was a short piece in one issue, relaying the news that the police had caught four suspects, and then carelessly let all four escape. No names, and no mention of the people Steve had killed when he broke out.
I was relieved but angered at the same time. I knew the pain the vampaneze had brought to that city, the lives they'd destroyed. It wasn't right that such a grim story should be turned into the stuff of funny urban legends, simply because it happened in a city far away from where these people lived. They wouldn't have found it so amusing if the vampaneze had struck here!
I made a quick check on issues from the next few months, but the paper had dropped the story after news of the escape. I turned to the local paper. This was slower going. The main news was at the front, but local interest stories were scattered throughout. I had to check most of the pages of each edition before I could move on to the next.
Although I tried not to dwell on articles unrelated to me, I couldn't stop myself from skimming the opening paragraphs of the more interesting stones. It wasn't long before I was catching up with all the news - elections, scandals, heroes, villains; policemen who'd been highly commended, criminals who'd given the town a bad name; a big bank raid; coming third in a national tidy towns competition.
I saw photographs and read clips about several of my school friends, but one in particular stood out - Tom Jones! Tommy was one of my best friends, along with Steve and Alan Morris. We were two of the best footballers in our class. I was the goal-scorer, leading the line up front, while Tommy was the goal-stopper, pulling off spectacular saves. I'd often dreamt of going on to be a professional footballer. Tommy had taken that dream all the way and become a goalkeeper.
There were dozens of photos and stones about him. Tom Jones (he'd shortened the "Tommy") was one of the best keepers in the country. Lots of articles poked fun at his name - there was also a famous singer called Tom Jones - but nobody had anything bad to say about Tommy himself. After working his way up through the amateur ranks, he'd signed for a local team, made a name for himself, then played abroad for five years. Now he was back home, part of the best team in the country. In the most recent editions, I read how local football fans were buzzing with excitement at the prospect of this years cup semi-final - it was being held in our town, and Tommy's team was in it. Of course, they'd have been a lot happier if their own team had qualified, but this was the next best thing.
Reading about Tommy brought a smile to my face - it was great to see one of my friends doing so well. The other good news was that there was no mention of me. Since this was quite a small town, I was sure word would have spread if anyone had heard about me in connection with the killings. I was in the clear.
But there was no mention of my family in the papers either. I couldn't find the name "Shan" anywhere. There was only one thing for it - I'd have to dig around for information in person by going back to the house where I used to live.